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French minister leaves Macron’s government after rape allegations

Damien Abad denies allegations but steps down saying he wants to ‘defend himself without hindering government’

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Anna Pujol-Mazzini
4 July 2022, 6.22pm

Damien Abad during "Dimanche en politique" on France 3 channel in Paris on October 25, 2020. Photo by Raphael Lafargue/ABACAPRESS.COM | Alamy

French minister Damien Abad has left Emmanuel Macron’s government after being accused of sexual harassment and rape.

Abad, the former minister for solidarity and disabled people, had been under fire for weeks after four women accused him of sexual misconduct. He denies wrongdoing.

Abad was replaced in a reshuffle today, making him the first serving minister to step down in connection with sexual misconduct accusations.

"It seemed preferable, in the face of the despicable slanders of which I am the target, orchestrated according to a well-chosen timetable, for me to be able to defend myself without hindering the functioning of the government,” he told the press on Monday.

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Abad is the latest of four ministers to have served under Macron since 2017 to have been accused of violence against women. Powerful interior minister Gerald Darmanin, who has been accused of rape, saw his ministerial powers expanded. Chrysoula Zacharopoulou, a secretary of state for development, stayed in her post in the reshuffle despite two women accusing her of rape while she worked as a gynecologist. Both have denied the accusations.

Since Emmanuel Macron was re-elected as France’s president in May, allegations of sexual violence against his new government – only the second in the country’s history to be led by a woman, prime minister Élisabeth Borne – have mounted.

Macron’s government came under fire for initially brushing off allegations against Abad, including claims he tried to drug women in order to take advantage of them, as no legal complaint had been filed.

“I am not a judge,” said PM Borne. “If new information comes to light, or if allegations are taken to court again, we will take that into account,” she said on May 22, the day after news website Mediapart wrote about two women accusing Abad of rape.

On June 27, the Paris prosecutor confirmed that a third woman – an unnamed elected official – had pressed charges against Abad, saying he had attempted to rape her at a party at his house in 2010.

According to Mediapart, which has broken dozens of sexual abuse stories in France, Abad offered the woman a drink that she suspected had been spiked.

When she went to spit out her drink in the bathroom, Abad was waiting for her behind the door, the woman told Mediapart.

She claimed the former MEP “pushed her into a room” and tried to force her to perform oral sex on him. “I was scared, I was flabbergasted. I struggled, I hit him in the stomach,” she said.

Nearly 200 women, including prominent feminist campaigners and politicians such as MP Clémentine Autain, Paris councillor Alice Coffin, and actress Adèle Haenel, demanded Abad’s resignation in an open letter published by Le Monde.

Despite the backlash, Abad was re-elected as an MP with nearly 60% of the second-round vote in his constituency in eastern France.

“They get rid of people when it becomes too much of a threat for the government, but it has no connection to the fight against sexual violence against women [...] otherwise Darmanin would not have stayed minister,” said Alice Coffin, a Paris councillor who co-founded the Observatory on Sexual Violence in Politics.

“If we had to sum up [the government’s] strategy against violence against women, I would say they only act when feminist voices become too insistent and it threatens them politically,” she added.

Macron said he refused to launch an “inquisition” and wanted to protect the presumption of innocence. The words came after, in 2017, he promised to make women’s rights “the big issue of this five-year term”.

Sandrine Rousseau, a Paris MP who has herself accused a politician of assault, told openDemocracy: “Macron is paralysed when faced by this. It’s as if he was incapable of reacting to accusations of sexual violence. It’s troubling.”

Rousseau plans to use her seat in the National Assembly to protest Abad’s continued presence as a backbencher. She will also work on a bill for political parties to better oversee and handle sexual violence accusations.

“When you speak out about sexual violence within a company, there are procedures, unions, human resources staff. In politics there is nothing, so it ends up being one person’s word against another’s,” Rousseau said.

Macron’s words echo his reaction in July 2020 as he refused to dismiss his minister of the interior, Gérald Darmanin.

The president faced calls from feminist groups and politicians to oust Darmanin due to a rape accusation against him, which he denies and was later dismissed by a court.

But Macron said he wanted to act as “guarantor of the presumption of innocence” and “not give in to emotion”.

Women’s rights and gender discrimination made their way into the 2022 presidential debates in an unprecedented way, and feminist campaigners and politicians created the Observatory on Sexual Violence in Politics, launching the latest wave of France’s web of #MeToo movements: #MeTooPolitique.

A study carried out by the network of female councillors Elues Locales revealed that nearly three quarters of them reported being victims of sexist remarks or behaviour. Sexual abuse has been reported in local town councils and regional governments all the way up to the corridors of the National Assembly and ministries.

The presidential race pitted two drastically opposed visions of the place of women in French society. The first, embraced by vocal advocates and survivors such as Rousseau and followed by some across the political spectrum, called for justice for survivors of sexual violence and for anyone accused of abuse to be demoted from their political mandate.

Across the political spectrum, the short-lived far-right sensation Eric Zemmour, himself accused of sexual assault by several women, promoted a vision in which “women are the goal and booty of any gifted man who aspires to rise in society”. Writing about the string of accusations of sexual abuse against powerful men since 2016 in France in his latest book, he said: “The seducer has become a rapist, the conqueror a culprit.”

Months before the Harvey Weinstein case in the US prompted thousands of women to open up about their experiences of sexual abuse, fourteen French female politicians linked to the Green party, including Rousseau, accused Denis Baupin – the deputy speaker of the National Assembly – of sexual harassment and assault.

It sparked an unprecedented backlash both against Baupin and against the women. Baupin denied the allegations and sued the women for defamation. He eventually resigned.

Since then, survivors have denounced sexual violence in all sectors of French society: prestigious universities, theatres, cinema, politics, sports, journalism and more.

Survivors are increasingly vocal, their movements increasingly organised, and their stories often covered in the press. Yet despite the rise in visibility, very few survivors have been able to obtain legal wins, and the accused, mostly men, have pursued their careers and political ambitions largely unscathed.

“In the event that we have victims who file complaints, we see the difficulties there are,” said Catherine Le Magueresse, a legal expert and former president of the European Association Against Violence Against Women at Work (AVFT). Le Magueresse said many cases are thrown out due to the statute of limitations having expired. But, she explained, it is not uncommon for victims to wait years to file complaints: “Suddenly the person who attacked them takes a position of power, it is unbearable for the victim and she files a complaint when she had been silent for decades.”

Many other cases are dismissed because of a lack of evidence. “It is an environment in which impunity is alive and well,” Le Magueresse added.

“Most often when we hear about legal proceedings it is when the defendant has filed a defamation complaint against the women who have denounced the facts.”

Abad has denied all the allegations against him and filed a complaint for defamation against one of his accusers.

The only former minister to have been jailed for rape is Georges Tron, who served a year behind bars of a five-year sentence (two of which were suspended) before being released with an electronic tag.

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